On the surface, Cardiff City’s 2-0 defeat to Bournemouth on Saturday will seem like a familiar tale. The scoreline sounds comprehensive enough to imply a formulaic game in which Premier League strength and experience won out, but it wasn’t quite that simple. For long periods, the Dean Court crowd were audibly anxious and, while Cardiff certainly have their limitations, that was because Neil Warnock’s side did an effective job in restricting the impact of their side’s possession football.
The preview for this game really wrote itself: Bournemouth’s more technical players would pass their way around Cardiff’s visiting monoliths and, when it mattered, the native goalscorers would prove the difference. Essentially, yes, that’s what happened: Ryan Fraser’s goal ruthlessly punished some slack defending and, just before the end, Callum Wilson finished the kind of quick, slick move which only one of the teams was likely to produce.
But Saturday wasn’t without its encouraging aspects. Totemic forward Kenneth Zohore was a big miss for Warnock and it won’t be fair to judge this team until he returns, but Bobby Reid produced a smart – albeit isolated – performance at the top of the formation. Goals will be hard to come by for Cardiff, that’s clear, but Reid is a fine player and £10m in this market probably represents good value. Elsewhere, the offset defensive trio of Sol Bamba, Bruno Manga, and Sean Morrison provided a physical challenge which not many Premier League forwards will enjoy. They may represent security by size and intimidation, but few teams will score set-piece against them and, given the standard of defending in this division last year, that’s a valuable strength.
For all intents and purposes, this remains a Football League team. To place them within their context, Cardiff are attempting Premier League survival on around half the budget with which Huddersfield managed it last season. Nevertheless, they are an organised Championship team. Also, while all newly-promoted players work hard on the opening day, that’s especially true in this case. When they’re at home, in front of their crowd and with the weather closing in around south Wales, that mix of discipline and grind will probably be too much for some of the weaker minded sides who visit.
See, that’s the great fallacy about surviving relegation. Cardiff shouldn’t be compared to Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool – most likely they’ll be humbled by all three at some point. Instead, the pertinent question relates to how Newcastle, Fulham, Crystal Palace and Newcastle cope with the challenge they pose, especially if they struggle and especially when their own morale and belief are low. Tempting as it is to swallow Sky’s rhetoric about the standard of the competition, beneath the top-six it really isn’t so daunting. Cardiff are still odds-on not to avoid relegation, but it’s not such an impossible task. If they maintain the standards set today on the south coast, then they will prove an awkward and stubborn opponent for all but the best few. They’re also not quite as direct as advertised. Warnock hasn’t built a Cyrmu Barcelona, but his players are fairly cautious in possession and they don’t just turn the sky black with footballs at the first opportunity.
Bournemouth certainly won’t want to see them again in a hurry and that will be true for plenty of other teams, too. At the least, in spite of their meagre spending they won’t be a Derby County or Sunderland; they’ll not go that easily. It’s still easy to see why it’s expected to be tough for them but, to their credit, it’s equally clear why they were able to win promotion in the first place.